MINNEAPOLIS — The ending will be remembered for quite some time.
But to fully understand the Thomas More Prep-Marian boys’ basketball team’s victory Saturday night in the Class 3A sub-state title game against Ellsworth, a person has to look to the beginning of the game.
That’s when the Monarchs executed nearly flawlessly and built a double-digit lead. That margin would prove to be the difference in a 58-55 win over the Bearcats that sent the Monarchs to this week’s Class 3A finale in Hutchinson.
“There’s no question about it,“ said longtime TMP coach Joe Hertel. “The execution of the game plan to just power inside got us a nice lead. We don’t have that 15 point lead down the stretch, we’re not sitting here talking about what we’re going to talk about in the end. I loved the effort and execution of the game plan in the first three quarters. I don’t think anybody going away tonight will remember that. They’ll remember the drama in the fourth quarter. But what we did in the first three quarters both offensively and defensively was top-notch. That was top-shelf work. That cushion is what allowed us to advance into next week.”
The Monarchs (17-5) bolted out of the gates. Senior Creighton Renz scored the first four points for TMP, then senior Trenton Mayo took over.
From there, senior post Michael Lager got going.
At the end of the first quarter, the Monarchs led 18-12, then 35-20 at halftime.
The Bearcats (16-7) had no answer for Lager inside in the first two quarters. The 6-foot-4 senior dominated the paint, tallying 17 of his 23 points by halftime.
Mayo added 10 of his 14 points in the first half as well, helping TMP out to the comfortable advantage and leaving Ellsworth shell-shocked.
“What we did in the first half is the reason we’re playing on,” Hertel said. “The end is always going to have drama. I told the kids at half that they knew full well that they were going to make a run. They weren’t going to say, ‘Here you go.’ And they didn’t. We staved them off for a long time, then we made a few mistakes at the end and got a few bad breaks. We just could not find the dadgum net from the foul line. Seriously, we don’t do what we did in the first half, we’re not playing on. That first 16 minutes was absolutely crucial, and it was top-shelf ball on our part all across the board player-wise.”
Ellsworth, after falling behind by 17 to start the third quarter, used a 8-0 spurt to get within 37-28 at the 4:35 mark.
But Mayo got a steal and a layup to start a 12-6 run to end the quarter, giving TMP a 49-34 advantage entering the final period.
That’s when Ellsworth senior Remington Cravens got going offensively. As the Bearcats whittled down the margin, Cravens scored six straight to make it 52-47 with 2:55 to play.
With the Monarchs struggling at the free-throw line, Ellsworth continued to take advantage to pull even closer.
After a 3-pointer by senior Chris Fitzgerald with 1:22 to go, Ellsworth was within 54-53.
Senior Luke Ruder would hit two free throws with 38 seconds to play, only to see senior Jordan Base — who finished with 15 points — make it 56-55 with a putback with 13.4 seconds remaining.
Lager hit two free throws to push the advantage to 58-55 with 11.6 to go, and Cravens missed a 3-pointer from the right wing.
Mayo collected the rebound and was fouled, but missed both free throws with 2.3 seconds remaining.
But Base’s three-quarter court shot was well off the mark as the horn sounded, sending the Monarchs to Hutchinson.
“We had a tough time stopping the Base kid,” Hertel said. “He’s a big, nice tough guard who has a chance to play at the next level. And we couldn’t come off that Cravens kid. He can shoot it, and he showed that down the stretch. We understand we’re in a pickle there, but I thought we did a heck of a good job down the middle of making it hard for him. We made some fouls, and he made some. But we made more stops and buckets than we didn’t, and that’s what gave us a cushion.”
Cravens finished with 21 points, including 15 in the second half.
But it wasn’t enough to help the Bearcats overcome the large deficit the Monarchs put them in through the first three quarters.
TMP got nine points from Renz and eight more from senior Bruce Chiu to help in the victory.
“I’m just proud of the whole group, and we get to play another week,” Hertel said.
The Monarchs will play Wednesday in the first round of the 3A finale.